The Precarious Lives of Chinese 维权 Lawyers

I have an incredibly confusing, love-hate relationship with China. I am in awe of China’s rich history, but I spend hours a day attempting to learn the character-based, analytic, and tonal language. I am inspired by the Chinese people and their stories but question the policies of the government daily. My relationship with China is push and pull, up and down, left and right. I embrace the culture, people, and language for everything it has to offer. But when it comes down to it, I’m often left dumbfounded by the government’s blatant overstepping of human rights. Maybe this is why I am so interested in China—it’s like one big, 1,376,049,000 people, socialist puzzle. If you know me, you know I’m fascinated by puzzles, word games, and codes. I see China as a giant puzzle, and I want to figure it out.

China, over the last few years, has been adding many jigsaw pieces to my “puzzle” with regard to their treatment of lawyers. Particularly the 维权律师, wéiquán lǜshī, human rights lawyers. I think the first distinction to make is the difference between American lawyers and Chinese lawyers. In America, there is a certain connotation that comes with lawyers. They are often regarded as well-off, but nonetheless fundamental parts of the American judicial system. Even if someone is a terrorist, murderer, or pedophile, they have the right to a lawyer. We often recognize lawyers in the U.S. as smart, well-educated and definitely necessary for the standard of justice we hold (or try to, at least – don’t get me started on the discrepancies) ourselves too.

But lawyers in China have an obligation to the policies and archetypes of the state. Lawyer’s rights and roles in China have a complicated history. Law schools in China are prestigious, but most lawyers only make a living wage, and are by no means rich, unlike stereotypical American lawyers. Furthermore, Chinese lawyers have even more restrictions on their relationship with their client. They have limited access to the client, and the State is involved in the relationships in varying degrees. Human rights lawyers have an even more precarious relationship with their clients and the state. Many of the human rights lawyers are in the field because they believe there are serious human rights violations in China. But with this opinion, they walk a very fine line. These lawyers want to support their client, but they risk being charged with “subversion of state power”, which could mean 15 years to life in prison.

Chinese human rights lawyers have made headlines again this week as the UN as High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has publicly requested clarification from Chinese statesmen on the repeated crackdown on human rights lawyers, NGO workers, journalists and other activists. This request stemmed from a roundup of at least 146 rights lawyers and their relatives in mainland China last July. This crackdown was unprecedented and inherently wrong. Today, the majority of the people have been released from police custody, but several prominent lawyers are still detained and are facing criminal charges. The Chinese police, explained the containment as targeting a “criminal gang” who had been illegally organizing paid protests. Under President Xi Jinping, human rights groups have painted a sad picture of human rights violations in China. President Xi Jinping has cracked down on activists with increased censorship and a negative rhetoric of western values. These high profile lawyers have long been under watch by the Chinese police. They report that they often are “invited” to coffee with the police and questioned about their current cases.

The livelihood of human rights lawyers in China is restricted but noble. Their work is limited by the government, and they risk their careers with each case they take on. The cases they take on are often in need of a powerful lawyer, and represent some of the most marginalized people in the Chinese political and social realm. Zhou Shifeng is the director of the Fengrui Law Firm, which has been the forefront of the Chinese police “investigation.” Zhou Shifeng is known for many famous cases, such as representing the parents of children who became sick after eating poisoned milk powder from a national producer. Wang Yu works at Zhou Shifeng’s law firm and is known for her persistent human rights activism. She has represented women’s rights advocates and ethnic minority rights advocates. Other lawyers have represented the Falun Gong practitioners (I wrote college application essay on this phenomenon and persecution, I recommend checking it out!), religious minorities, and pro-democracy activists. As you can see, these cases are important in the political and social scene in China, but also internationally. It’s vital for the development of human rights in China that these cases are taken on by courageous lawyers, but it is disappointing that these lawyers are in turn detained for their work.

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in a statement, “Lawyers should never have to suffer prosecution or any other kind of sanctions or intimidation for discharging their professional duties as they play an essential role in protecting human rights and the rule of law.” Zeid has encouraged China to immediately release all lawyers, without further interrogations. While our justice system in the U.S. is not perfect (cue Bryan Stevenson, Making of a Murderer, etc.), I think we often take it for granted. Our system has its flaws, some of them unfortunately lethal, but the inherent mission of the American justice system is commendatory.  We believe in lawyer representation, the removal of the state from the courtroom, and other policies that keep our system as a world-wide model. Of course we have room for improvement, just look at our recent incarceration rates, but in comparison to China, the U.S. is pulling ahead in all regards. Some may say I’m comparing apples and oranges, the U.S. and China, but I find it interesting that two world superpowers have justice systems that contradict each other on nearly every level. And we cannot allow it any longer.

While I commend the U.S. state department, EU, and UN for commenting on the crackdown on human rights lawyers in China, I wish the commentary had come sooner. While the biggest crackdown happened last July, the relationship between lawyers and Chinese statesmen has been strained for many years. While the international news is back on these detained lawyers, its time to action. We need to listen to internal activist groups whose on-the-ground teams are often more accurate than the American media attempting to read between the lines of Chinese state media. We need to understand the intricate relationship of the Chinese state and the Chinese justice system before offering our opinions. And, of course, as always, we need education. I believe the UN responded not only because of their own internal research, but also because of the worldwide conversation building around these lawyers. As the conversation picks up about human rights violations in China, its time to pick your fight. Mine comes in the form of a blog post, and I encourage you all to share information (check your sources! i.e. the Chinese state media is not a good one) about the violations and the fate of these lawyers. International pressure can worry even an economic powerhouse like China, but it will take a lot of effort.

“Take up legal arms! Fight for your rights!” – Wang Yu


Illustration by cartoonist @badiucao of eight lawyers staff targeted in crackdown by the Chinese police. Clockwise from top left: Wang Quanzhang, Liu Shihui, Liu Sixin, Li Heping, Zhou Shifeng, Wang Yu, Liu Xiaoyuan and Sui Muqing.


2 thoughts on “The Precarious Lives of Chinese 维权 Lawyers

  1. The other sad part about human rights lawyers in China, is not just the crackdown and other grievances in life they have to endure compared to the West. Human rights lawyers are commonly seen as nuisances, agitators or democratic lapdogs by less educated or perhaps more ‘patriotic’ Chinese people. I have heard friends and relatives numerous times that these people were ‘知识分子’ (a term for intellectuals with negative connotations). That they were serving the West and that they were betraying or annoying the Chinese people. It’s incredibly sad because many of these people probably care more about the people than the so called patriots but are just misunderstood due to government propaganda which have built an anti-liberal social context.

    Liked by 1 person

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